How social media really works in B2B

The southbound No 35 bus brings flat whites and new social media strategies from the Beards in Shoreditch to Suits in The City.


The top deck chatter is of “engaging customers in dialogue”, “deepening relationships” and “creating mutually beneficial value”.

But most social media strategies are to B2B marketing as flat white is to white coffee – all lace curtains and no sheets on the bed.

The presentation over, the underwhelmed Suits smile politely and turn back to planning their next predictable hospitality event while the Beards, flat and bemused, dribble back to the No. 35 bus stop.

Consumer brands come from a history of one-way, mass communication channels. To stay relevant, they had to find ways of building relationships with individual consumers as social media exploded. While new to B2C marketing, the focus on relationships is not new in B2B.

Investing time and effort in generating conversations with customers to develop, deepen and sustain beneficial relationships has always been the very essence of B2B marketing.

The goal for B2B is to move members of target Decision Making Units (DMUs) from basic brand awareness towards a sustained, post-purchase relationship.

It uses conferences, networking, prospecting research, outward phone calls, emails, initial discussions, cycles of follow-up meetings with influencers, pitches and if you’re lucky, watching sport or theatre visits.

There are essentially three ways that social media works in B2B but only one truly works at the relationship level.

Brand development: here we need newsworthy assets that build brand profile, generate coverage in relevant social media and give distinctiveness to the brand. This requires a content management strategy covering earned, owned and paid.

However, first you need the content. Truly newsworthy content that is engaging to read and not trivial; content which reinforces who you are, what you do and why you’d be a good organization to do business with. At the heart of a successful B2B brand beats the core skills of great PR.

Supporting the research process: members of the DMU need information to help make procurement decisions. B2B social content can help this process. It could be key person credentials or product and service specification but the by-word here is relevance.

Social media content must contribute to some element of the work-based activities and decisions faced by the DMUs. White papers, research notes, market comments and most of what constitutes ‘thought leadership’ in B2B are distributed via social media and, unless you do something different, this is just a cheaper and faster version than using the mailroom.

Passive, one-way communication, while useful if well targeted, should not be confused with social media used to build relationships.

Relationship building: Social media community building, seeding discussions or responding across platforms and communities can truly help develop B2B relationships.

Selecting, curating and publishing interesting and relevant content that actively invites response and dialogue must be paired with meaningful and relevant responses to the contributions that come from the DMU.

The by-word here is brand. Relationships, traditionally formed between your people and their people, become relationships between your (corporate) brand and the individual DMU members.

While remaining relevant, your content must inform about your brand – what you are like, what you offer, why you are different. Before purchase, it should help you remain in the DMU consideration set. After purchase it should demonstrate the value you place on the DMU members and instill confidence in the decision they have made. Tangential content (sponsorships, research, even CSR) is vital to differentiate your brand but it must never be gimmicky, faddish or trivial.

Much of the current B2B social media activity rests in the second of these: little more than a way of distributing content. Showing you are still alive (what comms people call SOS – Send Out Stuff) but not facilitating dialogue nor building relationships.

How many social platforms even enable B2B relationship building? How many foster a sense of community and provide after-purchase reinforcement? Twitter and Instagram, with their in-the-moment, autobiographical content, can work effectively with consumer brands. However, can they meet B2B’s need for extended content and involved dialogue?

Linkedin is work-focused and it too enables interaction and dialogue. However, it’s primarily a professional networking and recruitment site. People connect around shared interests and needs but the conversations tend to be snippets of work tasks, consultancy selling and personal reputation rather than true B2B relationship building.

B2B brands, including those in The City, could use social media to build communities of interest with content that enables DMU members to engage in relevant and useful dialogue.

To gain cut-through in The City, the Beards need to recognise this and come back with ideas for social media to enhance B2B relationships.

Until they crack this, the northbound No. 35 will retain an air of bearded melancholia.

by Adrian Britten, director of group communications, Amlin plc